Turning Tragedy Into Triumph
It must be one of the most difficult experiences in life to see your dreams threatened because of a sudden physical impediment, but that is exactly what happened to Def Leppard’s drummer Rick Allen on 31 December, 1984, when he lost his arm in a car crash. The musician’s dilemma made global news, but it gave Allen an idea for the title of the band’s next album: Hysteria (3 August, 1987; Mercury).
Problems continued to pile up when the band chose Meatloaf songwriter Jim Steinman to produce the album instead of Pyromania’s (1983) producer ‘Mutt’ Lange, and then changed their minds: leading to practically all their prior work being scrapped. This meant the album took three years to finish; resulting in it becoming one of the UK’s most expensive records ever made.
Def Leppard and Lange sought to create something like Michael Jackson's Thriller, by topping the hit parades with a bunch of singles; and incredibly they did manage to transform what looked like a disaster into a success by selling over 20 million copies of the album - which went to number one in both the UK and US - and charting seven singles. Perhaps even more of an achievement was Allen’s employment of a set of electronic pedals and modified equipment to help him play the drums again; it is said that when his bandmates saw him playing a version of Led Zeppelin’s When The Levee Breaks, they were absolutely amazed.
Not everyone was happy with this level of success however, as many heavy metal fans who loved Pyromania were disappointed with the band’s pivot towards more pop-oriented production. Guitarists Steve Clark - who favoured Gibsons - and Phil Collen – who opted for Jacksons guitars - maintained their chemistry, but their guitar parts now prioritized melody over riffs. Vocalist Joe Elliot and bassist Rick Savage were also committed to making a more heavily-produced pop album.
It is worth now recalling the musical context in 1987. Specifically, it was a period in which Bon Jovi had recently released Slippery When Wet, and Guns n’ Roses Appetite For Destruction. In the event Bon Jovi’s album rapidly sold in droves while Guns n’ Roses had to wait until their single Sweet Child O’ Mine helped spur album sales; while Def Leppard’s corresponding detonator was the single Pour Some Sugar On Me.
Leppard’s album kicked off however with Women, which was its first single release, but failed to greatly inspire. Rocket however, with its strong rhythm, ‘borrowed lyrics’ and quasi-psychedelic twist, was much better received, and has since become a fan favourite. Animal – which initially had helped keep the record company on board despite the spiralling costs - was the third single release, and made the Top 10 in both the US and the UK. It was also more rock-oriented than the previous singles and helped assuage the concerns of many of their long-time fans.
Next came the ‘double whammy’ of the power ballad Love Bites, written by Lange, and Pour Some Sugar On Me, which alone sold around four million discs. Side one closes with Armageddon It, the title of which reportedly arose from Lange asking Clark “Are you getting it?”, to which Clark replied “I’m a-gettin’ it”.
The strongest track on Side 2 is the title song Hysteria, which was based on a Savage-inspired riff. This atmospheric track emphasized the complicity and inter-play of the band’s two legendary guitarists, Clark and Collen. Gods of War begins with a catchy bass riff and sought to make an anti-war statement with its cacophony of gun fire and bomb explosions at the end; though it sounds a little dated today. Run Riot is a curious attempt to produce a punk-like track, but it is the closer, Love And Affection, that is the hidden jewel for many, with its light guitar-oriented pop sound.
Is Hysteria the best pop-metal album ever - or a huge commercial sellout? Whichever side of the debate you are on, it has to be acknowledged that Def Leppard achieved their own goals and despite the serious problems they had at that time, they triumphed. As Joe Elliott said: “by the time we did Hysteria, everything had fallen into place. Airplay and hit singles were one aspect of it but there was also all the hard work we put into the album. There was also Rick's accident, of course, and to be honest, I'm sure there was the initial wave of sympathy, but I'm equally sure the album would have still worked anyway. None of the other stuff – the touring, the promotion, the videos – none of that would have meant anything if the songs hadn't been there.”